Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s career is molten hot. The universally loved actor with the knock-’em-dead smile is one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leading men, but instead of following a banner 2012 (The Dark Knight Rises, Lincoln) with more big-ticket roles, Gordon-Levitt took a huge risk. Don Jon is a project five years in the making, and marks his debut as both writer and director. It stars Gordon-Levitt as Jon, a good-natured, buffed-up Jersey greaser who spends too much time in the gym and even more time on porn sites. When he meets the woman of his dreams (played by woman-of-your-dreams type Scarlett Johansson), Jon must confront how his addiction to jerking off affects his IRL relationship. The movie, which on the surface reads like yet another entry into the chicks-and-dicks R-rated comedy genre, is actually a warm and wise look at how our romantic expectations are tweaked by the assault on our senses brought on by 24/7 access to media. We recently sat down with newly minted actor/writer/director to discuss the film’s roots, bulking up, encouragement from other filmmakers, and his influences.
One of the first things people will think when they see you as a buffed-up Jersey boy is MTV’s Jersey Shore. Did that show influence this character at all?
I’d honestly never seen Jersey Shore when I started thinking about Don Jon. The main idea behind the film is about media–how it surrounds us all day, every day. How the screens we watch give us unrealistic expectations for love and sex. I thought: this could be a really funny thing to tell a story about something that I wanted to talk about and put into our culture. That’s why I thought a comedy about a boyfriend and a girlfriend where the boy watches too much pornography and the girl watches too many Hollywood movies would be a funny way to get at these questions.
So the key here was porn?
Well I knew that it could just be a guy that watches all that media, whether it’s porn or any other media, just because he’s lonely. It should be a ladies man to bring out what I really want to talk about. So when I thought, Who’s a ladies man? the classic archetype of Don Juan occurred to me, and I thought, Who’s the modern Don Juan? It’s this guy, with the gym body and the shiny hair. It made me laugh and intrigued me as an actor to get to play that part. Then it was a matter of flushing him out so it felt like more than just an idea, so it felt like a person.
Obviously part of that was bulking up and getting a little bit bigger than you already were.
A lot bigger! I’m a slender frame. So yeah, I put on a little weight.
What was your regimen like?
Just working out every day and eating a ton of chicken every day.
Did you like anything about being a big guy?
Not for me, man. It’s like a job! It takes so much time and effort to make that happen.
You asked your Looper director Rian Johnson for advice. What did they say?
Rian was the first guy that I showed the script to. Before that, I’d just been writing alone. When he was encouraging, and when he said: “I think you have something here–I think this could be a good movie,” that was a huge turning point. I think any time you set out to write a screenplay or undertake any other creative process, you’re going to get confronted by those voices in your head that tell you, You don’t need to do this or you could just quit right now. I think that’s the hardest part of any creative process–ignoring those and moving forward. But once I had that feedback from Rian, that was a turning point. I decided: “I’m going to make this movie.”
Did anyone else give you sound advice?
Yeah. I was in the middle of shooting The Dark Knight Rises when I was putting the pieces together, and I told Christopher Nolan that I wanted to direct something. He was really encouraging. What was cool was that he wasn’t encouraging in a blowing smoke way. “Oh great! Go for it!” He didn’t say any of that. What he did was he started to ask me questions. Very specific and sincere questions. To me, him doing that was actually more encouraging than a bunch of compliments, because it showed that he was taking me seriously. If he didn’t think I could do it he probably would have said “Great, good for you.” But instead he was asking me, “How many cities do you think you’ll need to go to?” and “How many locations?”
Tony Danza plays your dad. Did you have him in mind when you finished writing the father?
He was the first guy I thought of when I started looking. Tony is so lovable. You can’t help but smile when he gets on screen. But I also love it when an actor does something you don’t expect him to do, and you don’t expect Tony to have a short temper. You don’t expect him to be lecherous. You don’t expect these things from him, so I think it’s a great role for him to play.
What movies inspired or influenced you?.
Shampoo was a big influence. All of Hal Ashby’s movies, really. He makes a kind of comedy I really like, where you’re laughing on a human level because you relate to the people in the stories. Hal Ashby’s so good at that. Mike Nichols is another one. Carnal Knowledge is a great Mike Nichols movie with an early Jack Nicholson performance that’s brilliant. Actually some of the movies I’ve worked on have really inspired me like 500 Days of Summer and 50/5o. I was actually working on 50/50 when I conceived of this movie as a comedy. A sort of rated-R character-based comedy like the one we were making then.
You made this as an independent film, but you’re getting a wide release now. How has the audience response been so far?
I love it, man! I really wanted this to be a movie that you’d walk out of the theater and want to talk about it. Those are my favorite movies–that spark those conversations. This one definitely does. There’s never a shortage of questions. Why we’re attracted to who we’re attracted to, what it means to have good sex, what it means to have a meaningful relationship. We’re all interested in those questions.
Have you fielded a lot of questions about feminism?
You know, quite a few. I think it’s a pretty feminist film. My mother is a big kind of ’70s free spirit type of woman, and I think there’s a lot of her in Don Jon.